Risen 2: Dark Waters

"Sure, plenty of crapulous pirates spout raunchy one-liners and exchange F-bombs, but there's too much talking about rum and sex and loot and far too little action."

After being tossed about at the whims of my superiors and hours of laborious preparation, I was about to achieve the pinnacle of piratehood: captainship. Better yet, I was stealing a ship from a hostile port with the help of my newly established crew. With this ideal scenario at its climax, we boarded the ship and... Very. Slowly. Sailed. Away. There was no shouting from the docks, no explosion of tumult and hustle-bustle from officious Inquisition stooges, not a single sword brandished, not one bayonette fired, not one fist raised and shaken. The peaceful village music continued to play as my new ship sailed to sea in a brief cutscene indistinguishable from those used for mundane travel.

I believe the sense of high adventure tinged with constant danger and financial security has led to the modern worship of the pirate. In short, people believe that the pirate's life is fun, however historically inaccurate that may be. Those fun-loving pirate idolizers who eagerly await Risen 2: Dark Waters are about to be thoroughly disappointed. With appallingly bad game design and cheap presentation, Risen 2 strips the pirate's life (and the RPG) of all its thrills and fun.

Risen 2 loosely continues the story of its predecessor by borrowing the nameless protagonist, although those who neglected the first need not busy themselves with its completion before taking on the sequel. There may be a few familiar faces to Risen veterans, but no previous knowledge of the setting, characters, or themes is necessary. Even the protagonist himself has put a patch on the Inquisitor monocle obtained in the first game, as if to forget what came before. (One wonders if the developers were trying to do the same.) Having already taken the first step toward piratehood with the patch, the protagonist takes another by going undercover as a pirate in the name of the Inquisition. Mara, Titan from the abyss, threatens the world, and infamous pirate captains may hold the key to salvation.

One might rightfully expect a tale of an undercover Inquisition cat's-paw rebelling against the establishment: the deadly, heroic turncoat pirate saves the day. Perhaps Risen 2 was in development for too long, though, because at some point, the developers forgot this initial bit of intrigue. No one seems to care who the protagonist sides with, and hardly anyone seems to be aware that there was any plotting to begin with. Instead, the pirate captains send the protagonist on a four part fetch quest that culminates in a perfunctory final battle with not so much as a coda to compensate.

Although there is no narrative to speak of, the dialogue and characters can be amusing, if not always in the ways intended. Risen 2 adopts a lighthearted tone early on, making the curse-laden dialogue and silly voice acting more digestible and entertaining. The crassness of the world's inhabitants can be overbearing at times, and the game is by no means mature. Much of the humor could be matched by high school boys, for better or worse, and sensitive gamers might find something to be offended about. Indeed, I'm extremely difficult to offend, and yet I found the indigenous people vaguely racist.

The characters never really establish strong personas, including the protagonist, whose personality can be partly shaped through roleplaying. Regardless of dialogue choices, however, he's generally a scoundrelly sort of louse. That might be expected, but with neither much intelligence nor integrity, he lacks the charisma of other popular anti-heroes. The supporting cast can be entertaining at times, but they lack too many human traits to be likeable. The villain Mara joins the ranks of those anonymous ancient and ultimate evils game developers are fond of producing from their rectums.

Risen 2's semi-open world encompasses a handful of islands and segments of coastline cloaked in jungle and dotted with settlements and ruins. Although the total geographical area is quite small, each region is densely packed with monsters, treasure, and NPCs. Exploration is the one thing Risen 2 doesn't botch outright, and combing beaches for pearl-pregnant oysters and hiking through jungles laden with danger is fun and rewarding. Towns are fairly well designed as well, and most NPCs have various lines of extraneous dialogue fleshing out the setting and its peoples. Risen 2 may never reach the heights of immersion or realism due to its various problems, but the core design is there for engaging exploration.

When not exploring, expect to have as much fun as this review's introduction implies. Quests are modeled after their parent fetch quest, character progression is muddled and limited, and combat proves the least fun of all. The level of detail and nuance inherent in Risen 2 could have made for an excellent RPG. The various extra combat options, like throwing coconuts and tossing sand; collectible plants that permanently boost stats; recruitable crew members to boost abilities or help during combat; and all of the treasure seeking and item crafting deserve to feature in a better RPG. These minor highlights, however, can't save a game with such shoddy and broken foundational gameplay.

The main fetch quest (collect the four artifacts necessary to kill Mara) is broken down into countless smaller fetch quests and chores. Completing the game often feels like a Sisyphean task, as one chore leads to another: beat someone in a swordfight to challenge someone else to a drinking contest to convince the water carriers to carry water to your ship to collect six objects to obtain one of four artifacts. Most of these tasks aren't interesting done once, and yet Risen 2 asks the player to repeat them time and again. I still can't believe that I had to persuade water or rum carriers to load up a ship at least three separate times. When not being repetitive, Risen 2 produces vague quest goals and difficult to find triggers. I appreciate when actual roleplaying is required to complete quests, but not when a poor localization makes conversation incoherent and quest objectives mysterious.

All the while, the player accrues gold, items, equipment, and "glory," or experience. The islanders are a load of stingy bastards, however, and scrabbling together enough gold and glory to improve the protagonist can be another chore by itself. Instead of levels, Risen 2 uses a system of skills and talents that is both confusing and overly puzzling. Talents, which increase basic damage or effectiveness, can be increased with vast amounts of glory. Skills, which include parries, ripostes, and voodoo curses, can only be improved by paying a specific trainer. Determining each talent's function as well its actual gameplay effects while trying to earn enough gold to learn skills makes for an unpleasant experience. As I increased my swordfighting skill to high levels toward the end of the game, I never felt much more powerful, but I feared to pursue other paths.

Since resources are scarce, I felt that any choice I made with my talents and skills would be the wrong one. As I progressed through the game, more and more seemed to be shut off from my abilities: I could never talk my way out of a fight, eventually every treasure chest was locked, and voodoo became underpowered and useless. The effect is unbelievably stifling. For a game that advertises a sense of freedom and choice in completing quests, this is deplorable. After allocating glory to talents and putting the protagonist on one path, the lack of resources closes off all other avenues. All this might be less of an issue if the combat wasn't so mercilessly, punishingly awful that the player needs every skill, ability, and gold piece he can muster.

Utilizing a basic click-to-attack system, Risen 2's combat makes simple battles dull and complex ones tedious and insurmountable. I found two essential enemy types in Risen 2: the dumb animal and the smart humanoid. Dumb animals can usually be hacked at mindlessly until they die. Monkeys ran circles around me even as I slashed their lives away. A few beasts proved more difficult, however, because their attacks can't be blocked, leading to frustrating chains of strikes. The human (close enough) foes wield swords, spears, or similar weapons, which enacts a wannabe meditative duel system that fails utterly. It simply doesn't function.

Risen 2 isn't any fun to play, and what could be more unlike the life of a pirate? The deluge of chores, the tedious combat, the lack of progression – these things should not exist in the pirate's world, a place of high adventure and constant action. Despite cutlasses and tricorne hats, nothing pirate-like happens in the game. Sure, plenty of crapulous pirates spout raunchy one-liners and exchange F-bombs, but there's too much talking about rum and sex and loot and far too little action. Risen 2 never puts the player behind the eyepatch.

I almost feel silly concluding with an overview of graphics and music since neither could possibly make Risen 2 more fun, even if they were flawless. While jungles and beaches maintain impressive detail, interiors – such as caves, tombs, and houses – bear muddy textures and other eyesores. Even the outdoor environments suffer from an odd pop-up effect that makes flora appear to bloom as one approaches it. Character models are merely average when not in motion, and adding motion produces ghoulish results. Animation during conversation exceeds that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in terms of absurdity, one of the many immersion-breakers. A few forgettable music tracks accompany the scenery; mostly serene, background filler with an approximate jungle theme, and drums signal combat as usual. Not all the music is so innocuously average, however. Several tracks simply don't match the onscreen action, removing me from the world on yet another level.

Ultimately, Risen 2 feels unfinished. I feel like I played half a game, in terms of both content and quality. Unlike some games with small, but well designed worlds, Risen 2's feels small. Quests, main and side alike, are shallow and repetitive with few decisions for the player to make. A few choices early on prove meaningless, and the frequency of such branching paths decreases as the game progresses. Other elements feel half completed. Minor glitches occur, the art design lacks a coherent vision, and sound effects go missing. Companions go temporarily missing as well, likely hitting the bottle when they should be fighting so I don't have to. The translation is clearly incomplete, as only half of it makes much sense. And let's not mention the gameplay again. During my playthrough, I felt Risen 2 might come asunder at any moment.

I'm rarely disgusted after beating a game. Risen 2 left me aghast, and I'm not even a pirate fanatic. I can't imagine the disappointment of those expecting to finally lay their hands on a quality pirate RPG. What could have been a heavily nuanced action RPG is instead a waste of potential and a cheap product. Risen 2 doesn't just leave the niche as empty as it found it. Risen 2: Dark Waters gives pirates a bad name.

© 2012 Deep Silver, Piranha Bytes. All rights reserved.